Impactstory Advisor of the Month: Lorena Barba (December 2014)

A photograph of Impactstory Advisor Lorena Barba2014’s final Impactstory Advisor of the month is Lorena Barba. Lorena is an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the George Washington University in Washington DC, and an advocate for open source, open science, and open education initiatives.

We recently interviewed Lorena to learn more about her lab’s Open Science manifesto, her research in computational methods in aeronautics and biophysics, and George Washington University’s first Massive Open Online Course, “Practical Numerical Methods with Python” (aka “Numerical MOOC”).

Tell us a bit about your research.

I have a PhD in Aeronautics from Caltech and I specialized in computational fluid dynamics. From that launching pad, I have veered dangerously into applied mathematics (working on what we call fast algorithms), supercomputing (which gets you into really techy stuff like cache-aware and memory-avoiding computations, high-throughput and many-core computing), and various application cases for computer simulation.

Fluid dynamics and aerodynamics are mature fields and it’s hard to make new contributions that have impact. So I look for new problems where we can use our skills as computational scientists to advance a field. That’s how we got into biophysics: there are models that apply to interactions of proteins that use electrostatic theory and can be solved computationally with methods similar to ones used in aeronautics, believe it or not.

We have been developing models and software to compute electrostatic interactions between bio-molecules, first, and between bio-molecules and nano-surfaces, more recently. Our goal is to contribute simulation power for aiding in the design of efficient biosensors. And going back to my original passion, aerodynamics, we found an area where there is still much to be discovered: the aerodynamics of flying and gliding animals (like flying snakes).

Why did you initially decide to join Impactstory?

For a long time, I’ve been thinking that science and scientists need to take control of their communication channels and use the web deliberately to convey and increase our impact. I have been sharing the research and educational products of my group online for years and we have a consistent policy with regards to publication that includes, for example, always uploading a preprint to the arXiv repository at the time of submitting a paper for publication. If a journal does not have an arXiv-friendly policy, we don’t submit there and look for another appropriate journal. We started uploading data sets, figures, posters and other research objects to the figshare repository since its beginning, and I’m also a figshare advisor.

Impactstory became part of my communications and impact arsenal immediately, because it aggregates links, views and mentions of our products. And with the latest profile changes, it also offers an elegant online presence.

Why did you decide to become an Advisor?

So many of my colleagues are apathetic to the dire control they put in the hands of for-profit publishers, and simply accept the status quo. I want to be an agent of change in regards to how we measure and communicate the importance of what we do. Part of it is simply being willing to do it yourself, and show by example how these new tools can work for us.

What’s your favorite Impactstory feature?

The automatic aggregation of research objects using my various online IDs, like ORCID, Google Scholar and GitHub. The map is pretty cool, too!

You’ve done a lot to “open up” education in computational methods to the public, in particular via your Numerical MOOC and Youtube video lectures. What have been your biggest successes and challenges in getting these courses online and accessible to all?

In my opinion, the biggest success is doing these things at the grassroots level, with hardly any funding (I had some seed funding for #numericalmooc, but none of the previous efforts had any) or institutional involvement. When I think of how the university, in each case, has been involved in my open education efforts, the most appropriate way to characterize it is that they have let me to do what I wanted to do, staying out of the way. There have not been technologists or instructional designers or any of that involved; I just did it all myself.

The biggest challenge? Resources, I guess—time and money. My scarcest resource is time, and when I work to create open educational resources, I’m stealing time away from research. This gets me disapproving looks, thoughts and comments from my peers. Why am I spending time in open education? “This won’t get you promoted.” SIGH. As for money, I raised some funds for #numericalmooc, but it’s not a lot: merely to cover the course platform and the salary of my teaching assistants. Funding efforts in open education—as an independent educator, rather than a Silicon Valley start-up—is really tough.

Thanks, Lorena!

As a token of our appreciation for Lorena’s outreach efforts, we’re sending her an Impactstory item of her choice from our Zazzle store.

Lorena is just one part of a growing community of Impactstory Advisors. Want to join the ranks of some of the Web’s most cutting-edge researchers and librarians? Apply to be an Advisor today!

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